President Obama will finally follow up his June 4, 2009 visit to Cairo with one to Israel. Though he was just a stone’s throw from Israel at the time, he chose not to go the Jewish state and it is not too hard to figure out why.
Early on in his speech at Cairo University he pulled no punches: “I’ve come here to Cairo to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world….” The new president may not have meant his words to be understood this way, but many supporters of Israel saw them as sending a message that the longstanding U.S.-Israel relationship would be recalibrated to one extent or another in order to win the trust of Muslims.
In a sense, this inauspicious beginning soured Jewish and Israeli perceptions of Mr. Obama and created fear about his feelings toward the Jewish state.
In retrospect, at least, much of that fear appears to have been groundless; with the exception of his view on settlements (which at any rate dovetail pretty much with the views of prior U.S. presidents) and his at times testy personal relationship with Prime Minister Netanyahu, his administration has been supportive of Israel at the UN and other international forums, and U.S.-Israel military and intelligence ties are as robust as they’ve ever been.
But the old adage about first impressions has certainly held true here, and the suspicion with which Mr. Obama is viewed by many in the pro-Israel community is as palpable today as it was in 2009. Indeed, some are suggesting that the current trip is designed to address the problems created by the Cairo trip and speech.
One thing that stood out in the speech and which many saw as troubling was his characterization of the relationship between the United States and Israel:
America’s strong bonds with Israel are well known. This bond is unbreakable. It is based upon cultural and historical ties, and the recognition that the aspiration for a Jewish homeland is rooted in a tragic history that cannot be denied.
At first glance that statement might seem as nothing less than praiseworthy; here, after all, was an American president in the heart of the Muslim Middle East telling an Egyptian audience that the U.S.-Israel friendship is “unbreakable.” But what disturbed so many and set the alarm bells ringing was that, perhaps inadvertently, he was embracing the Arab narrative that Jews have no historical claims in the Middle East and the establishment of a Jewish state there was the result of Western guilt feelings and penance for the Holocaust.
Following his connecting the Holocaust with Israel, the president said:
On the other hand, it is also undeniable that the Palestinian people, Muslims and Christians, have suffered in pursuit of a homeland. For more than sixty years they have endured the pain of dislocation…. So let there be no doubt: the situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable.
So he seemed to be saying that while the Jews are artificial transplants to the region, the Palestinians are indigenous. Moreover, he seemed to equate the victimization of the Jews by the most ruthlessly efficient killing machine in history to the Palestinian experience under the dislocations and deprivations of Israeli occupation.
Of course, Mr. Obama, as noted above, has thus far come through for Israel both militarily and diplomatically for the better part of his presidency. Whether that can be attributed to political expediency or to a genuine appreciation for Israel and the U.S.-Israel relationship on Mr. Obama’s part remains to be seen.
Mr. Obama’s main challenge during this week’s visit will be to try to reverse the negative first impressions he created four years ago. Frankly, the fact that he has refused to visit such politically symbolic places as the Knesset is not encouraging. But he will be going to places that underscore the Jewish connection to the land such as the Shrine of the Book at the Israel Museum, which contains the ancient Dead Sea Scrolls that testify to Jewish life in the Middle East more than 2,000 years ago. He also plans to lay a wreath at the grave of Theodor Herzl, the founder of political Zionism.